What are we fighting for?

What heroism really is.  Phil Klay wrote easily the best book about the Iraq War I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot), and easily the best story collection I’ve ever read (to  be clear, these are one in the same).  Not surprisingly, his NYT essay on the moral costs of war and the true meaning of heroism is terrific.  Trust me and read it.

From our founding we have made these kinds of moral demands of our soldiers. It starts with the oath they swear to support and defend the Constitution, an oath made not to a flag, or to a piece of ground, or to an ethnically distinct people, but to a set of principles established in our founding documents. An oath that demands a commitment to democracy, to liberty, to the rule of law and to the self-evident equality of all men. The Marines I knew fought, and some of them died, for these principles. [emphases mine]

That’s why those Marines were trained to care for their enemy. That’s why another Marine gave his own blood to an insurgent. Because America is an idea as much as a country, and so those acts defend America as surely as any act of violence, because they embody that idea. That nurse, in the quiet, alone with that insurgent, with no one looking as he cared for his patient. That was an act of war…

If we choose to believe in a morally diminished America, an America that pursues its narrow selfish interests and no more, we can take that course and see how far it gets us. But if we choose to believe that America is not just a set of borders, but a set of principles, we need to act accordingly. That is the only way we ensure that our founding document, and the principles embedded within, are alive enough, and honorable enough, to be worth fighting for.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

3 Responses to What are we fighting for?

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    That oath to the Constitution and what it means is what makes America exceptional.
    As a former high school civics teacher (civic is a vanishing class in today’s schools) I’m not at all sure that the meaning of the oath is at all clear to many Americans.

    • Stefan says:

      There is a consensus that civic engagement needs to be taught to all Americans. Furthermore, I would hope that most members of the military share Klay’s view of what we’re fighting for. However, most members of the military fight to protect their buddies (results from every war since surveys began after WW II) rather than some ideal. Furthermore, from my experience in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam era, the enemy was dehumanized. Stories from special forces in Thailand, where I was stationed, were horrifying, even if hyperbole. The use of waterboarding and other torture techniques were justified because they weren’t “like us.”

      • R. Jenrette says:

        Once on the battlefield I know you are right that soldiers fight for their own and their fellow soldiers to survive. But, surely, in an all volunteer fighting force – as opposed to draftees – there is a long view as well.

        Sorry I’m so late responding.

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